We have a beautiful history of oral storytelling in Aotearoa (New Zealand). The first waka (boats) to scrape their bellies on these sands have brought with them people unmatched in seafaring and whose history and stories were remembered through kōrero the spoken word. Māori waiata (songs), and karakia (prayers) were passed on between generations, along with their history and whakapapa (genealogy). Knowledge was shared between old and young, and stories told for both learning and pleasure.
In Western culture, there is a lot more emphasis on the written word. We value reading and writing, which often puts pressure on children to learn these skills before they are ready to do so. Foundational skills such as the ability to hold a pencil correctly, phonological awareness and learning how to listen form the basis of emergent literacy in early childhood education and need to be learnt before any formal writing begins to happen.
Where literacy begins
Communication is arguably the most important skill that human beings possess. While many other animals have systems of doing so, nothing comes close to human language. Every single language consists of specific sounds (or gestures, as is the case with sign language), combinations and rules behind using them that allow us to communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas with others in a uniquely exact and specific way. There are rules, there are exceptions, and there are stylistic and regional variations on top that add extra complications.
Learning a language is a huge undertaking, and most of it happens orally. Children learn languages through listening and talking. They hear how different words are used, they figure out their meaning from context, and pick up on the patterns in which they sit within a sentence. They use those same words to express themselves, experimenting with sounds and patterns so that they can convey what they mean and feel while conforming to the complicated rules. This is the foundation of literacy.
As they get older, children will use what they’ve learnt through writing. They will use a pen or a keyboard to record strings of symbols that represent the combination of words that they want to use to express their thoughts. And while using these symbols is an important skill, it’s nowhere near as important as coming up with ideas and knowing the right words and how to combine them.
Supporting children’s development of oral literacy
Whilst a child might not have the words yet, there are ways we can communicate and still have conversations. Serve and return is played in a game of tennis and is a term we can utilise when we are ‘talking’ with infants and toddlers. Their ‘serve’ may be a gesture or sound and we can ‘return’ and respond through the tone of our voices and facial expressions.
The best thing that we can do to support the development of young children’s oral literacy is to talk, even if they are not ready to talk back. Voice your thoughts and observations, narrating and describing the world around you as much and as often as you can. Adding language that describes what is happening will help children understand the world and later help them to express their thoughts in new and more complex ways. Use self-talk, when you are alongside children, talk about what you are doing as you are doing it. Try parallel talking and model or repeat sounds or words using the correct pronunciation directly after the child has spoken, so they can hear how to say it correctly. Adding words to what a child has just said is a way to increase vocabulary and will grow the complexity of ideas or sentence types in their oral language.
None of us have learnt to speak from using a dictionary. We learn most words by hearing them and connecting their meaning within the context in which they are used. The more words we hear, the more words we can learn. The more sentences we hear, the better we learn to form our own.
While it is important for us to talk, it is also important for young children to voice themselves. Be it sounds, single words, or full sentences, children need to feel comfortable and know that their voice is valued. We want them to feel confident about communicating with us and to know they are being heard. If they are, they will speak more — they will practice. The more they practice, the better they will get. Ask lots of open-ended questions allowing them to give a wider range of responses, encouraging them to express their own views. Maybe they have made a painting at kindy or encountered something fascinating in the park that they are desperate to tell you all about. And make sure you let them answer in their own words. The point of the question isn’t to find out the information, it’s to give them the opportunity to tell you what they think.
Songs and story telling
Reading together and storytelling are valuable interactions for fostering children’s oral language. Whilst a large portion of our language use is practical in nature, we also use it to entertain. No matter where you go in the world, people tell stories and sing songs. This is where we can have a little more fun with our words and how we use them. Rhyme, metre, tempo, structure, they are all used with a little more freedom. There are figures of speech, metaphors, and the content is rarely confined to reality. This makes for a fascinating exploration of what language can be. And it’s not just about listening.
Making up stories and songs is a valuable exercise. We often shy away from creating stories for fear of feeling foolish which is a shame as children love nothing more than hearing new and colourful adventures, the crazier the better. Let’s face it our small audience is appreciative of anything we usually do and will probably hang on every word we say, especially at bedtime. So, it may seem awkward at first, but try making up stories with your children. Just start talking. If you’re stuck, ask your child and get them involved, I’m sure they’ll have lots of ideas of their own. Use props or objects to help you tell the story, whatever’s handy at the time. A favourite teddy could be a prince on horseback, the duvet a troll’s cave. Be playful with your voice, make it loud, quiet, slow, fast, high and low or just be plain silly! This will add drama and excitement to your song or storytelling.
Telling stories together teaches children that stories and songs aren’t just there to be read in storybooks but can be told by anyone. So have fun and enjoy these special interactions, use your imagination, be creative and know that you are playing an important role in supporting your child’s literacy development.